Peter Bart: Will A Big-Budget Film Finally Win Oscar’s Best Picture?

Netflix; Warner Bros.; Sony

Oddsmakers studying generational trends in Oscar voting may likely bet that Marriage Story stands a better chance than The Irishman to win Best Picture. Or that Parasite will earn more kudos overall than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It comes down to scope: The prototypical winners of the past decade are Moonlight and Spotlight. Smaller is better.

The Academy likes to remind us that one third of its voters are new, but newcomers still remember the not-so-distant past when contenders carried a different message, heralding their extravagant showmanship: The Greatest Show on Earth, Around the World in 80 Days, Ben-Hur and An American in Paris. In 1962, voters got to choose between Lawrence of Arabia, The Longest Day, The Music Man, Mutiny on the Bounty and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Given the brave new world of streaming services, will the Oscar contenders of the future continue to reflect the “smaller is better” mandate? Or will the majors try to resurrect the showmanship of a previous generation?

“Making a movie is a study in torment,” the famously exacting and grumpy David Lean once told me as he was completing postproduction on Lawrence of Arabia. “If you start a movie, you might as well make it a big one.”

Lean loved a big canvas. He might even have understood Louis B. Mayer’s promise to assemble “all the stars that are in heaven.” Given his cinematic sensibility, Lean would nonetheless have admired many of the winners of the past decade – The Artist, Birdman, 12 Years a Slave, even Slumdog Millionaire — yet have yearned for that bigger canvas.

The studios, of course, are still putting big bucks on the line, but they tend to limit their gambles to superheroes and franchises. By one count, some 58 franchise films were distributed in 2019, devouring 80% of total box office. Disney and its Marvel machine dominated these numbers, though Sony invaded its turf with Spider-Man and Jumanji sequels. The major anomaly of the year, of course, was Joker, a $1.1 billion box office surprise that hovered in the aura of a franchise film but found its own unique, and disturbing, identity.

Hollywood’s overall ticket sales were down about 4% last year, and a daunting percentage of its non-franchise offerings were disappointments – The Goldfinch, Charlie’s Angels and Richard Jewell, for example. Still, several “mid-budget” films defied the skeptics: Rocketman, the Elton John biopic, grossed $195 million for Paramount, while Danny Boyle’s Yesterday capitalized on its Beatles afterglow to pull in $151 million for Universal. Both were produced within the framework of “indie” films, yet reached beyond the indie market. The same prevailed for Downton Abbey, which, drawing on its TV heritage, is nearing the $100 million mark.

The limitations of the indie marketplace were nonetheless evident, even in the case of successes like The Peanut Butter Falcon or Parasite, both of which grossed a respectable $21 million – to be ultimately bolstered by kudos and ancillary markets.

Will the streaming services invade the “bigger canvas” terrain championed by Lean? Certainly Netflix has made the most courageous forays — witness The Irishman — and its fierce appetite for kudos may pay off despite the smaller-is-better inclinations of Academy voters. Disney, while spending freely for its franchise films, seems to be pursuing a modest agenda for its streamers, with a risk-averse slate of mid-budget films that were not working as theatrical releases. There will be no Disney-style Irishman.

I suspect Netflix would have found a willing creative partner in Lean. The grizzled Englishman went on to make Dr. Zhivago, Bridge on the River Kwai and Ryan’s Daughter, all with ambitious themes and sprawling budgets. To be sure, it would have been a pity to see them debut on TV screens.

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